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From Distant to Connected: Effective Communication Strategies to Improve Parent-Child Relationships

Sierra Williams, MA, NCC, LPC | Clinical Therapist

Featured Team Members: Sierra Williams, MA, LPC

It is common knowledge that adolescent boys and girls face many challenges during their exciting and trying developmental years. And it’s no surprise that those challenges can often persist into young adulthood. Many parents struggle to reach out, connect to, and partner with their child throughout this phase of life. Most of the students and families that I work with describe the parent-child relationship as significantly strained, damaged, and/or disconnected. Parents often remark that their child has pushed them away, shut them out, or distanced himself/herself from them in heart-wrenching ways. To help parents reconnect and mend relationships with their child, we provide parents with coaching and learning opportunities throughout their parallel Open Sky experience. Through these opportunities, they develop improved ways of attuning to and communicating with their child, which are essential to a harmonious parent-child relationship. This family-focused work is and has always been foundational to Open Sky.

Unhealthy patterns in parent-child relationships often stem from the struggle to actively listen to each other and communicate effectively and assertively. Frustration, sadness, anger, and hopelessness permeate parents’ efforts to change their child’s behavior prior to wilderness therapy. Mismanagement of these emotions hinders communication and can create a power struggle between parent and child. Parental instincts to persevere and attempt to explain, reason, bargain, or demand change often fuel the power struggle that ultimately results in conflict and disconnection. Often, parents then find themselves at a loss for how to move forward with little understanding of how they got to this point.

Get Grounded

Calming and centering oneself is a significant part of initiating or rekindling healthy parent-child communication. When a parent is grounded before entering into a challenging (or even ordinary) conversation with their child, the interaction is often more satisfying and fruitful. Throughout their own Open Sky journey, parents learn and practice breathing techniques like “3-fold breaths” and grounding techniques such as “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 sensory count”. These skills assist parents in the important step of managing and attuning to their own thoughts and emotions in a way that allows them to then be present, open, and compassionate with their child. By utilizing these techniques, parents are also modeling mindful practices for their child.

Motivational Interviewing

It’s also important for parents to adopt new and effective styles of communicating to improve their relationship with their child. As I work with students and parents who report strained relationships, I introduce the therapeutic practice of “motivational interviewing”. This approach consists of techniques that can be adapted and practiced in parent-child relationships to promote healthy communication, mutual contribution, and deeper connection.

Motivational interviewing skills offer parents ways to practice accurately attuning to their child’s emotions, thoughts, and needs. This includes listening, empathizing, and affirming the child for what they have expressed. Attunement is the foundation necessary for a more elongated, expanded, and productive conversation in which all parties are invested. Upon that foundation, the conversation develops with parents inquiring about the change the child is invested in making and then actively listening in order to support open communication. This ultimately allows both parties to feel respected and heard, which is the first step to more frequent, intentional, and productive conversations.

A motivational interviewing concept known as “OARS” helps to guide an individual in this communication style:

  1. Open-ended questions that will elicit more than one-word responses or “conversation stoppers”
  2. Affirm the child without refuting or discounting his or her emotions or ideas
  3. Reflect on and highlight the essence of what was expressed
  4. Summarize the experience and the intention moving forward

By using this technique to engage fully without distractions or interjections, parents will start to diffuse conflict and build understanding. Families who utilize this skill report feeling mutually respected and better connected, despite experiencing natural trial and error during the learning process.

The thought of forming meaningful, healthy, and deep family connections won’t seem as daunting or hopeless when parents have the necessary tools to center themselves and communicate effectively. By using the skill of motivational interviewing, parents and their child are better able to move forward in their relationships. It allows them to do so in a way that honors individual and family values and promotes more harmonious and compassionate connections.

May 25th, 2018

Sierra Williams, MA, NCC, LPC | Clinical Therapist